Page last updated at 08:08 GMT, Wednesday, 27 January 2010

How Avatar toppled Titanic

By Neil Smith
Entertainment reporter, BBC News


Watch a scene from Avatar - courtesy of 20th Century Fox

The original Titanic sank in 1912. Now the blockbuster movie it inspired has also gone down.

This time, though, it was not an iceberg that toppled it, but a 3D film about a blue-skinned alien race defending their moon against human invaders.

Towards the end of the last decade, James Cameron's epic Titanic became the most successful movie ever with global takings of $1.843bn (£1.14bn).

But that record no longer stands thanks to Avatar - also directed by Cameron - which this week stole its crown as the all-time global box office champ, with receipts of $1.859bn (£1.15bn).

It is an astonishing achievement for the 55-year-old Canadian, and one that is unlikely to be repeated in his or our lifetimes.

Yet it is also a triumph for the 20th Century Fox studio and its parent company NewsCorp, the financial backers of this bold, predominantly computer-generated science-fiction saga.

The film is set on a planet populated by blue-skinned aliens

Quite simply, Avatar has been a phenomenon that has captured the cultural zeitgeist in a way few could have predicted.

It did so despite having few star names and generating a mixed reaction from the critics, many of whom slated its plot, dialogue and characterisation.

The film has also drawn fire from the blogosphere, with some pundits attacking it for what they see as its anti-American subtext and environmentalist agenda.

Some have even accused it of being racist in its depiction of a white hero coming to the aid of a persecuted indigenous population - largely portrayed, incidentally, by African-American and native American actors.

No one would claim Avatar is high art, any more than they would consider Titanic a modern masterpiece.

Yet what it does have in its favour is state-of-the-art visual effects that transport the viewer to a spectacularly realised extra-terrestrial world.

That Avatar was Cameron's first feature since Titanic - winner of 11 Oscars in 1998 - was enough by itself to ensure it would be a major release.

Yet it took a combination of canny scheduling, aggressive marketing and an industry-wide drive to revive 3D for its full potential to be realised.


Had Avatar opened last summer, it would have faced much stiffer competition for audiences and cinema screens.

By launching in December, though, the film has enjoyed a virtually unchallenged month-long run without any significant challenges from other titles.

Fox's rivals may have deliberately refrained from taking it on, mindful of the huge expectation that surrounded this heavily hyped picture.

Unconfirmed reports suggest Fox has spent as much as $150 million (£93 million) promoting a movie some claim cost $300m (£185m) to make.

Hi-tech effects were used to create its eye-popping visuals

Perhaps the key factor in Avatar's success, though, has been the way it has turned the revived interest in the 3D format to its advantage.

Last year, such animated features as Up, Monsters Vs Aliens and Fox's own Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs showed the industry digital 3D projection was a viable proposition.

Avatar has been able to build on their success, capitalising on the higher ticket prices cinema chains have been charging to see it in stereoscope.

Crucial to the film's marketing is that it is an "event" movie that needs to be seen in 3D to be appreciated fully.

It is a message that has clearly taken hold of the UK sector, where audiences have chosen in overwhelming numbers to pay more to see the film than they would otherwise need to.


According to entertainment analyst Nielsen EDI, standard "2D" screenings represent just 15% of Avatar's UK takings.

In contrast, 85% have derived from 3D or IMAX 3D screenings.

Such data bodes well for forthcoming 3D titles like Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, Toy Story 3 and Tron: Legacy.

Avatar UK ticket sales

It will also encourage more cinemas to install the digital equipment required to screen films in 3D.

According to the Film Distributors' Association, 15% of UK cinema screens - around 500 in all - are 3D enabled.

However, it expects that figure to rise significantly in the coming months as more high-profile titles are released in the format.

Where does this leave Cameron? Back to being the "king of the world" as he proclaimed himself at the Academy Awards 12 years ago.

Oscar glory may not be lavished so fulsomely on Avatar, though that is unlikely to make much of a dent on his apparent box office invincibility.

Not only that, but he now shares - with Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson, Pirates of the Caribbean director Gore Verbinski and Harry Potter helmer David Yates - the honour of having two films in the all-time box-office Top 10.

Crucially, though, he has the top two. And if you think he is not happy about that fact, you do not know Jim Cameron.

Print Sponsor

Avatar is top-grossing film ever
27 Jan 10 |  Entertainment
Avatar smashes box office record
04 Jan 10 |  Entertainment
Cinema's third attempt at 3D
03 Apr 09 |  Entertainment

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific